Why Iowa?: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process

Why Iowa?: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process

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If Barack Obama had not won in Iowa, most commentators believe that he would not have been able to go on to capture the Democratic nomination for president. Why Iowa? offers the definitive account of those early weeks of the campaign season: from how the Iowa caucuses work and what motivates the candidates’ campaigns, to participation and turnout, as well as the lingering effects that the campaigning had on Iowa voters. Demonstrating how “what happens in Iowa” truly reverberates throughout the country, five-time Iowa precinct caucus chair David P. Redlawsk and his coauthors take us on an inside tour of one of the most media-saturated and speculated-about campaign events in American politics.

Considering whether a sequential primary system, in which early, smaller states such as Iowa and New Hampshire have such a tremendous impact is fair or beneficial to the country as a whole, the authors here demonstrate that not only is the impact warranted, but it also reveals a great deal about informational elements of the campaigns. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this sequential system does confer huge benefits on the nominating process while Iowa’s particularly well-designed caucus system—extensively explored here for the first time—brings candidates’ arguments, strengths, and weaknesses into the open and under the media’s lens.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226706962
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/15/2010
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David P. Redlawsk is professor of political science and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. Caroline J. Tolbert is professor of political science at the University of Iowa. Todd Donovan is professor of political science at Western Washington University.

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Why Iowa?

How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-70696-2

Chapter One

Why Iowa?

Because the Rules Matter

On the day of the Iowa caucus, my faith in the American people was vindicated. What you started here in Iowa has swept across the nation. So, the people of Iowa, I will always be grateful to all of you! — Barack Obama, campaign speech, Des Moines, Iowa, October 31, 2008

Imagine 2008 without the Iowa Caucuses

January 20, 2009. The new president is taking the oath of office, capping a campaign that was both improbable and yet inevitable. As she raises her right hand, President-elect Hillary Clinton considers the road that got her to where she is. It began in New Hampshire, with her easy win in the nation's first primary nomination contest over first-term Illinois senator and political upstart Barack Obama and second-time candidate and former North Carolina senator John Edwards, among others. No doubt her regional strength—after all, she was the junior senator from New York—played a significant role in her victory in New Hampshire, followed quickly by good outcomes in Nevada, where labor carried her to victory, and South Carolina, where her husband's strong standing with the African-American community helped her run even with Obama. By the end of the February 5 Super Tuesday primaries (so called because close to half the states held their primaries that day), Clinton was the Democratic Party's nominee.

Her general election opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, had a tougher time against his main opponents, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona senator John McCain. With New Hampshire as the starting point, Romney capitalized on his regional connections and battled to a draw with McCain, who had won the state in 2004. Giuliani, who had been the national front-runner mainly on name recognition, could not raise enough money to offset the millions Romney could put into the campaign. Once Romney showed his strength, conservatives who saw both Giuliani and McCain as RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only, fl ocked to his campaign, despite the efforts of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who had no money, no name recognition, and no prospects. Unfortunately for Romney, 2008 was simply a Democratic year. Despite his strong campaign, voters worried about a declining economy and the collapse of financial markets elected Clinton the first female president of the United States.

* * *

Of course, none of this actually happened. New Hampshire was not the first nomination contest in 2008. Iowa was, with its January 3 caucuses. But it is interesting to consider the question: what if 2008 didn't begin in Iowa? Hillary Clinton may have won the Democratic nomination, as she narrowly won New Hampshire's primary despite being upset earlier in Iowa. The momentum from New Hampshire could have propelled her to victory. Moreover, since 1980 all but two candidates who raised the most campaign money the year before the nomination contests began ended up winning their party's nomination (Aldrich 2009; Cohen et al. 2008). In 2008 the candidates with the most money going into Iowa were Clinton for the Democrats and Romney for the Republicans. Whether Romney would have won without Iowa is more speculative, but certainly his campaign was derailed there by Huckabee, who was relatively unknown on the national stage but who overcame a lack of both money and organization to win Iowa. Romney placed second despite outspending everyone else in Iowa. As it turned out, after losing Iowa, Romney also lost New Hampshire to John McCain, who then rolled up enough winner-take-all primary victories to claim the Republican nomination on Super Tuesday.

For Hillary Clinton, her seemingly inevitable path to the nomination stalled in Iowa, where Obama, a lesser-known if not underdog candidate, won on the strength of superior organization and intensive efforts to mobilize young voters. Obama's surprising win in Iowa not only began to let the air out of the Clinton invincibility bubble, but also showed voters nationally that white voters in Iowa would in fact support a black man for president. By exceeding initial expectations, the momentum from winning Iowa may have contributed to Obama's success as the Democratic nominee, much in the same way that President Jimmy Carter gained momentum from his surprising victory in Iowa back in 1976.

Iowa's Role in Electing America's First Black President

Was Iowa critical in the election of America's first black president? The national survey analysis we present in this book shows that winning Iowa did in fact generate the momentum propelling Obama to victory in the 2008 Democratic Party nomination. Yet Iowa did not propel Huckabee to the Republican nomination, though it seems likely it fatally wounded Mitt Romney's campaign. This book demonstrates that more than thirty years after Carter discovered the magic of Iowa, early contests such as Iowa and New Hampshire proved critical in shaping how voters beyond those states evaluated the candidates in 2008. The path that Carter followed from Iowa to gain the elusive "momentum" that candidates seek may have changed somewhat, but we suggest it is still clearly marked. That early contests can be crucial in determining who wins the nomination raises several normative questions that we address in detail in subsequent chapters.

Obama's path in 2008 may have been similar to Jimmy Carter's in 1976. But Obama isn't like Carter. Carter is white and Obama is black. That alone is difference enough. The United States fought a Civil War over equal rights for African Americans. Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review of Books (Pinckney et al. 2008) reminds us that "it's been sixty years since the Dixiecrats walked out of the 1948 Democratic convention, more than forty since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, and twenty since the elder George Bush ran his Willie Horton ads." But even though the race card may still be played in some campaigns and in some parts of America, as we write an African-American man sits in the Oval Office. By any account it is not trite to focus on the historical nature of the 2008 presidential election, given our nation's experience with slavery and race relations.

Our national survey data show that winning (mostly white) Iowa was critical to perceptions that Obama could win the nomination (what is called "viability"), and that viability was in turn the most important factor predicting a vote for Obama in subsequent primaries and caucuses. His overall success in the presidential nomination contest may be rooted in his come-from-behind victory in the Iowa caucuses and the momentum it generated that propelled him forward. Although many would agree that the Iowa caucuses were important, at least in this campaign, early nominating events, including the New Hampshire primary, may be more important in a systematic way than has often been recognized by pundits and scholars (Hull 2007). This is particularly so if you believe the rules of the game help determine who wins and who loses in politics. In 2008 without Iowa, Hillary Clinton may have been the Democratic Party's nominee, as the opening vignette suggests. Without Iowa, America may not have a black president. Just as the rules of the Electoral College gave Texas governor George W. Bush a victory in the 2000 elections, despite Vice President Al Gore's having won more votes, the Iowa caucuses may have been instrumental in electing Barack Obama in 2008.

The Rules Matter

Rules matter. A truism, perhaps, but research on presidential nomination campaigns rarely goes beyond this truism to understand how in fact they do matter. This book focuses on understanding how election rules, and institutions in general, and Iowa in particular, infl uenced the 2008 presidential election and nominating process. And although 2008 may have been sui generis at least for the Democrats, we argue that the rules governing the presidential nominating process matter generally, consistent with published research (Norrander 1996, 2000). Our twist is to focus on Iowa rules.

In this book we examine in depth two critical rules of modern presidential nomination campaigns, both connected to the unique role of Iowa. The first is that Iowa holds caucuses rather than a primary. The nature of the caucus process conditions how candidates campaign and how the media interpret the results. The second is that Iowa votes first, and nomination campaigns develop sequentially, moving from one state to another. This sequential election process has important implications for who wins and who loses in the end. Taken together, these two rules—and many additional, smaller rules that are embedded in them—define the modern nomination campaign: the strategies candidates use, the information voters learn, the way voters make decisions, and the final outcomes.

Building on and extending Christopher Hull's (2007) work on Iowa's role in the nominating process in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we argue that the Iowa caucuses have become more important in recent presidential elections, and play a greater role than they have in the past. This is in part a function of the mass media's growing attention to the Iowa caucuses. The evolutionary metaphor to describe this change is punctuated equilibrium, in that the old system has experienced an abrupt and consequential change. At the same time, the increasing importance of Iowa has given rise to a growing sense among political scientists and the general public that there is no rational reason to grant Iowa (and New Hampshire) special status. The conventional wisdom is decidedly hostile toward Iowa (and at times New Hampshire) and the impact its privileged position has on the selection process. This hostility is rooted in the notion that this small midwestern state carries such outsized influence (Winebrenner 1998).

To be blunter, Iowa has been trashed by many who see caucuses in general and Iowa in particular as unrepresentative and biased. This perspective has always been long on speculation and short on empirics. There are positive aspects to Iowa's procedures that have been ignored. What we saw in 2008 was that electoral rules can be greatly influenced by exigent circumstances. Thus, Iowa's role in the 2008 election, on close inspection, looks to have been quite edifying. This book sheds new light on the benefits of Iowa, while at the same time calling for reform of the presidential nominating process.

The two important rules governing presidential nominations structure the second and third parts of the book: caucuses versus primary elections (part 2) and the sequential nature of subsequent primaries (part 3). Part 4 then examines how voters perceive the fairness of the existing process and how the presidential nominating process can be reformed. Here we learn that national opinion polls show that most Americans favor reform, but they may not recognize the benefits derived from the current system. In each of these three parts, we show how the rules matter, and how they shape aggregate outcomes (candidate vote share), individual political behavior, participation, public opinion, campaign strategy, and more. We propose a reform that merges both sequential and simultaneous election rules, along with caucus and primary rules. We conclude with our policy proposal: a caucus window followed by a national primary.

Caucuses are different from primaries, and their rules call for different campaigns. They favor grassroots campaigning, and require voters to be more attentive. As a result, fewer voters attend caucuses, but those who do are generally more aware and involved than voters elsewhere. The unique nature of a caucus means that candidates must structure their campaigns to find proverbial needles in the haystack: the voters who will come out for hours on a cold winter night in Iowa. We argue that this process makes candidates better. They must build effective organizations, spend time in living rooms and VFW halls, and engage in retail politics, meeting voters face to face. Whereas most primaries result in large-scale media campaigns and short airport tarmac appearances, caucuses—especially in Iowa—require a kind of campaigning that seems part of a bygone era, but which ultimately strengthens successful candidates and provides more information about all candidates, not only to Iowans but to all voters.

Our argument carries with it a story about the role of the mass media in making Iowa what it is today, and how the media themselves become part of the story. Iowa's election rules (caucuses, sequential voting) are the wheels that start the process and propel a candidate toward the nomination, while media attention to the Iowa caucuses is like the grease that lubricates the state-by-state sequential election process. The news media give disproportionate attention to front-running candidates they expect to do well in Iowa. If results in Iowa depart from initial expectations, media attention shifts to those candidates who beat expectations, whether they actually win or not. This shift in national media attention helps determine who is packing their bags for New Hampshire and Super Tuesday and who is packing to go home. Using data from nomination contests over a thirty-year period (1976–2008), we provide evidence of a macro process in which changes in the amount of news coverage candidates receive from the days preceding the Iowa caucuses to the days after—changes associated with unexpected election results—significantly affect how well candidates do in later primaries and in ultimately securing their party's nomination. We then unpack the micro foundations of these behavioral dynamics by drawing on a national survey of public opinion we conducted during the 2008 primaries and caucuses. We find a similar dynamic at play, in which voters rely on information about the results in Iowa and New Hampshire. Voters' knowledge of the winners of Iowa and New Hampshire shapes their perceptions of whether they think a candidate can win the nomination. This, in turn, shapes voter choice in states that cast ballots after Iowa. Widespread public awareness of the winners of early nominating events, such as the Iowa caucuses, results from intensive news media attention given to the earliest contests. Our national survey data show that knowledge of Barack Obama winning (mostly white) Iowa was critical to perceptions that Obama could win the nomination. In turn, perceptions of Obama's viability were the most important factor predicting a vote for him in subsequent primaries and caucuses.

One additional point frames our argument. The presidential nomination literature—especially with regard to Iowa's role—needs to be updated. Nelson Polsby (1983), John Aldrich (1980), and Larry Bartels (1988) each wrote definitive political science books on nomination politics. These were published twenty to thirty years ago, and much has changed since then, including new campaign strategies incorporating information technology, online campaigning, and aggressive state frontloading (scheduling primaries and caucuses near the beginning of the delegate selection season to have a greater impact on the process). Although there has certainly been more published since then, much of it builds on the conventional wisdom that came out of this early work.

Caucus Rules

One important rule structuring the nominating process is some states' use of caucuses instead of primary elections to select presidential candidates. Iowa not only votes first in the current nomination schedule, but it is a caucus state that goes first in that process, which specifically structures modern presidential nomination contests. Instead of making the more simplistic and obvious claim that the rules matter, we develop the argument that the structure and rules of the Iowa caucuses differentiate them from both primaries and other caucuses when (1) all the major candidates campaign extensively in Iowa, (2) candidates emphasize retail, face-to-face contact, and (3) candidates reach out to groups that are less likely to be targeted in traditional elections. Although the literature argues that the rules matter, we draw attention to Iowa's relatively unique process for selecting presidential candidates.


Excerpted from Why Iowa? by DAVID P. REDLAWSK CAROLINE J. TOLBERT TODD DONOVAN Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xv

Part I Framing the Argument

Chapter 1 Why Iowa? Because the Rules Matter 3

Chapter 2 What We Know and What We Don't about Presidential Nomination Campaigns 18

Part II Caucus Rules

Chapter 3 Iowa Caucus Rules 45

Chapter 4 Candidate Campaigns in Iowa: Grassroots or Mass Media Politics? 63

Chapter 5 The Iowa Grass Roots: Participation in the 2008 Caucuses 86

Chapter 6 Decided by the Few: Are the Iowa Caucuses Representative? Daniel C. Bowen 118

Part III Sequential Voting Rules

Chapter 7 Effects of Iowa and New Hampshire in U.S. Presidential Nomination Contests 1976-2008 Rob Hunsaker 141

Chapter 8 The Micro Foundations of Momentum 157

Chapter 9 Participation and Engagement in 2008 Caucuses and Primaries William W. Franko 178

Part IV Changing the Rules

Chapter 10 Reforming the Presidential Nominating Process Daniel C. Bowen 213

Chapter 11 Why Iowa? Continuity and Change in Presidential Nominations 240

Appendix A Multivariate Tables for Chapter 7 257

Appendix B Multivariate Tables for Chapter 8 261

Appendix C Multivariate Tables for Chapter 9 265

Appendix D Multivariate Tables for Chapter 10 269

Notes 273

References 289

Index 303

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